On a sunny Saturday afternoon in New York, a group of young men have gathered in a SoHo loft to play video games. This in itself is not unusual. However, in one corner of the room, an Emmy Award-winning television director is sitting at a mixing console, readying a five-camera set-up for live broadcast of the games to the Internet. In another corner, a table of food laid out for the gamers is not creaking with pizza but instead offers bison wraps from Energy Kitchen and eight different kinds of salad.
They range in age from 17 to 27, and almost all of them are wearing some combination of T-shirt, hoodie, baseball cap, jeans and sneakers, but these are not the nerds you’re looking for. To a man they’re polite, well-spoken, intelligent, and friendly. Some of them run their own businesses and, despite the recession, are planning to expand. Today, before they conquer commerce, they will show why they are among the very best video-game players in the world.
Ian Wyatt might just be No. 1. He was born in January 1994, the same year that Sony introduced the PlayStation console and kick-started video games into the mainstream. Known by his in-game pseudonym “Enable,” Wyatt has been playing competitively since 2007, but he has hopes and dreams like anyone else his age: He wants to go to college, qualify as a certified public accountant, and run his own clothing label while continuing to excel as a pro video gamer. Up in the SoHo loft for the Red Bull LAN invitational event, he is the player all the others look up to as being the man to beat.
"You go there to prove yourself, and then the other guys know who you are and they come and find you online, to challenge you."
“When I first started, I had no idea about all this,” he says. “I got into competitive gaming because my brother played LAN, then I got better than everyone in my neighborhood, then I found out about Major League Gaming. At my first three events there, I didn’t get out of the amateur brackets. So I put more time into it.”
(There won’t be another jargon-buster paragraph like this one, promise: LAN -- pronounced “lan,” as in “land” -- stands for “local area network,” a bunch of computers or video-game consoles in close proximity, connected to one another directly via cable or Wi-Fi, but not via the Internet. The Internet, an open network of millions of computers, is effectively the opposite of a LAN. The term is also used to describe a competitive gaming event at which computers and consoles are connected in this way. Major League Gaming is a leading organizer of video-game contests, aka pro video gaming and e-sports. The league’s 2012 season will be its ninth. Prize money at its four major tournaments will total $300,000.)
“You have to be dedicated and put in the hours,” Enable continues. “Going to competitions is huge, because you go there to prove yourself, and then the other guys know who you are and they come and find you online, to challenge you. If you don’t have the dedication to this, you have nothing.”
As anyone who has been in thrall to a video game before will know, the dedication required, or the commitment a game draws from a fully engaged player, can lead to waking up on the sofa with a video-game controller in your lap after falling asleep at the wheel—or wielding a sniper’s rifle, wearing a quarterback’s jersey, or wearing the blue overalls and red hat of an Italian plumber named Mario. For the leading gamers, sleepless nights and endless days at the controls are their equivalents of the extra laps and practice sessions that turn promising child athletes into professional sportsmen and women. (Apologies to the parents of teenagers reading this.)
What separates the pros from the wannabes in any competitive discipline is dedication and application. The second of these attributes is on display in the New York loft: How can these guys get better? Aside from the three-hour gaming sessions broadcast live online during early evenings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the players will share the rest of their time at the Red Bull LAN training, assessing their performance, and getting advice from nutritionists, physiologists, and sleep experts. The event is like a cross between the NBA All-Star Game and spending a weekend wired up at a secret medical facility that the coach tells the press is a team bonding exercise.
Football teams know what a player is made of, but insight into what makes an exceptional gamer is only just emerging. They key in around 200 actions per minute, with hand-eye coordination on a par with tennis players and wide receivers. Gamers can sit for 12 hours straight without moving much, so they need to know about protein intake, proper hydration, the effects of sleep deprivation. They also have to react to the sounds of the game and the commands of their teammates in their headphones.
There are two main games of choice in pro gaming: “Halo: Reach” on the Xbox 360 console and “StarCraft II” on the PC. Both are futuristic combat games; “Halo: Reach” is played in the first-person, the screen showing the avatar’s in-game view and weapon. “StarCraft” is a third-person game in which the player acts more like a general than a soldier, controlling multiple troops and vehicles from a top-down view of the action. In South Korea, the country with the highest rate of Internet connectivity in the world, professional “StarCraft II” is shown on major TV channels, with several players earning big money and celebrity status. In New York this afternoon, a notch back from Seoul levels of fame but no less competitive, the game is “Halo: Reach.”
Enable is the best at “Halo: Reach” because he has all the skills but stays calm during the games. He’s calm and focused, too, in conversation, and when a man who works in the building comes up to the loft with his young son to show the boy the pro video-gaming set-up and thus become the coolest dad in the whole wide world, Enable takes time to show the two of them around, explaining everything with care, asking if anyone has any questions. Enable himself is asked one question more than any other: How can you be so good at video games when you only have one thumb?
“It happened when I was very young, 2 years old,” he explains of his unique physiology. “My brother was on his bike, and I just put my thumb in the chain and…right off. It was bad at the time, but now it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s what makes me. It comes as a surprise to people, but for me and the runner with the blades [South African sprinter Oscar Pistorious], it shows you can not be 100 percent and be excellent at something.” Unlike the double-amputee runner with the artificial limbs, the missing body part here doesn’t cause controversy.
After the tour, it’s game time. The 15 participants are split into three teams of four each with a coach. Two teams and coaches play at any one time, with the third in the “War Room,” an area of chairs and sofas with Xbox 360 consoles and 12 screens that are used for practice but mostly replay footage of previous games, so that players can study their mistakes and look for flaws in their opponents. This kind of analysis doesn't exist at typical competitions, so the players take advantage, watching the footage in detail. They’re also happy just to be in the same room as one another: They usually play online from their homes, so face time is precious and used wisely.
THE YOUNG GUNS VS. THE OLD GUARD
Everyone here—and there are 42 people in the room at one point, including broadcast crew, journalists, photographers, and watchers—would like face time with Dave Walsh. At 27, Walsh, known by his in-game handle of “Walshy,” is the old man of pro video gaming. He was the first to become widely known and the first to earn money at it—a true pioneer and the biggest name in Western e-sports. Says Enable: “I look up to Walshy, and he’s inspirational in the ways he’s done what he’s done. He shows that you can be a pro gamer, but also that you can do other things at the same time.”
Walshy’s “other things” include a clothing label he launched in 2005, two years into his pro gaming career; he raised the start-up cash by selling a Dodge Charger he won in a gaming competition. He sports a tattoo of the label’s logo on his left forearm and can often, but not always, be found wearing one of its T-shirts. “They’re all made in America,” he says, “no sweatshops.”
In junior high, Walshy played tennis and wrestled. He dropped out of college when he realized he could make a living from pro gaming (one industry insider estimates Walshy’s annual income in the low-six-figures). He became the Major League Gaming champion three times, but then there was a slump. The previous version of “Halo,” he says, didn’t suit his playing style.
“I wasn’t happy, so I made some changes in my life: I broke off a five-year relationship with my girlfriend, left the team I was playing with, decided to get back in shape. Eating healthy, running, and working out, I put on 20 pounds. All that directly translated to happiness in my gaming. People went from saying, ‘He’s done, he should retire,’ to ‘Wow, he’s phenomenal.’ Knowing I could put my mind into it, put that work into a slump and turn it around, that feels good that it paid off.”
So when Walshy and Enable join their teams and turn to face each other, it’s pro video gaming’s persevering pioneer going up against its phenom: Ali versus Tyson, with rocket launchers and plasma grenades. In the gaming area of the loft, two teams sit at a table with eight screens back-to-back in two lines of four. The coaches pace up and down behind the seated players, pointing out the position of weapons to be collected, or where opposition players are “respawning”—coming back to life after being killed. All the players and coaches are wearing headsets.
There’s a lot of chatter during the games—suggestions, exclamations, and a few insults coming as quickly as the button pushes on the controllers. It’s very fast, and watching one player’s screen can be overwhelming to those not used to the pace of the game played at this high level.
For the online broadcast, the director switches between individual players’ direct feeds and the cameras in the loft. He can also choose team audio, single-player audio, or the game commentary, provided live in the loft by pro video gamer turned announcer Danish Maqbool, aka DMaq, and Jo Garcia, who writes the Gamer Next Door column for “Playboy” and was its Cyber Girl of the Year in 2008. During the web broadcast, the live-comments window features about two-thirds unabashed enthusiasm/criticism for the gameplay and one-third total admiration for Garcia. This is sports broadcasting not as you know it, but also as you do know it.
Consider for a moment the interactivity enjoyed by fans of traditional sports. They watch the big game on TV, then call in to radio hosts, tweet, or email the panel of analysts in the studio. A few lucky fans might have VIP passes to some post-match gathering where they can shake hands with the players, maybe get a photograph and an autograph.
Imagine if fans could enter a lottery, from which a bunch of them were chosen to compete alongside the pros in another match-up right after the big game finishes: “Join us after the break, when some of you will be playing the guys—live.” That’s what the online audience for a pro video gaming event may have to look forward to: the chance for a game against the pros. It’s a can’t-miss prospect for fans. After a previous Red Bull LAN event, there were 15,000 hopeful gamers waiting for their shot.
Players of online games might also be lucky, or unlucky, enough to come up against Walshy when he and his teammates are playing under other, secret gamer names, mainly to check out the level of talent coming up behind them, but also just to keep their trigger fingers sharp.
“Me and StrongSide,” says Walshy, referring to his teammate, the gamer Michael Cavanaugh, “we can ruin people’s days going on as alter-egos. He can trash talk in other voices, so you can’t tell it’s him. One time, we were online and StrongSide was doing this Hispanic voice and convincing the other team that we were the best players in Mexico. They were telling us to come to America and turn professional: ‘Dude, you guys would shock the world.’ ”
The first of this year’s five Red Bull LAN events takes place March 16-18 in Orlando, Florida. Watch online at www.redbulllan.com.
Check out the April 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands March 13) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.